Franchise Retrospective: Pirates of the Caribbean – Star Wars For A New Generation

Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Released on July 9, 2003, this film was far from a sure thing. It was a big gamble (even for a company as big as Disney). Pirate movies were a terrible investment (Cutthroat Island is one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history) and the last film based on a Disney theme park, The Country Bears, did so terrible that Disney almost shut down production on the first Pirates film. Pirates of the Caribbean is still the exception to the rule as far as turning Disney rides into movies (fingers crossed for Jungle Cruise). Johnny Depp being cast raised some eyebrows. Johnny Depp, while popular, was never a big movie star that would draw in a crowd, and fans of his saw this as him selling out. Disney executive Michael Eisner notoriously claimed, while watching Depp’s performance, that “he’s ruining the film.’ It was opening in a summer filled with the competition that included X2: X-Men United, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Matrix Reloaded, Hulk, and even Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo. All of which seemed like better bets than Pirates of the Caribbean. The deck was stacked against them.

Yet it paid off.

Worldwide Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was the fourth highest-grossing film behind only Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Finding Nemo, and The Matrix Reloaded. Johnny Depp earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal as Jack Sparrow (the last time an actor/actress was nominated for a role in a Disney movie was Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins back in 1965). Jack Sparrow became an iconic film character overnight. Hans Zimmer’s theme for the movie became the sound of adventure for an entire generation the same way the Indiana Jones march did for the one before it.

Since the film was made without any idea if there would be sequels, it incorporates more elements from the ride than any other film the series. This gives it that instant ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ feeling that can’t quite be described. The perfect movie to watch the night before you go to Disneyland to get you in the mood for a day at the park.

Watching now, knowing where the franchise will essentially lead and what minor elements that are here not major plot points (Jack’s compass) is novel, and it’s hard to imagine a time when this wasn’t a big franchise but just one film. It is an incredibly made film. It is well-acted, the script is tight and keeps the action moving while all being motivated by character, and the direction by Gore Verbinski is brimming with imagination informed by humor. He keeps thinking about what will look cool but also knows how to have fun with it.

That humor is a big part of the film’s success and why audiences fell in love with it. It maintained what audiences wanted/expected to see while also subverting where it needed to, in a typical Pirate fashion. Instead of ‘finding a treasure’ the pirates here are trying to return a treasure. Instead of a straight forward pirate film, it is one with a supernatural twist. Jack Sparrow is not your classic swashbuckling hero; he isn’t suave like an Errol Flynn type. He is odd and says funny things, and his oddball actions bounce off the more straight-laced characters to surprising comedic effect that keeps the events traditional but also comical.

Curse of the Black Pearl in many ways seems like an ancestor to Guardians of the Galaxy. Both films tell a traditional story within their respective genre (a pirate adventure/a pulp sci-fi adventure) but given a comedic twist by the presence of a wild card element (Jack Sparrow/The Guardians themselves) that acts like a virus on the story, infecting the proceeding adventure turning the story on its head by their sheer presence. At least one of the characters (Jack/Gamora & Drax) has a score to settle with the main antagonist while the others are drawn into a conflict. It is irrelevant and very odd but wears that oddness with pride. They feel like a breath of fresh air, something new and unseen. Big creative swings that are so different from everything else released around them that audiences fall in love with because of that reason.

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